Home / Opinion / Columns /  The hazy ethics of tech-enhanced human performance

There is a philosophical question that must be pondered by anyone who attempts to tamper with the human body through experimental technology. Electronic implants that push the frontiers of medicine, when used to achieve ends such as restoring eyesight, are indeed inspiring. Meanwhile, science-based attempts at using the gene-editing tool “CRISPR", short for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", to achieve similar ends are also laudable. At its most basic level, CRISPR is a tool for gene editing that has immense potential for precise and efficient modifications. It has been used to treat genetic diseases and genetically modify plants.

However, many scientists consider it unethical to try manipulating genes or implanting electronics in the human body simply to boost the performance of otherwise healthy people. I have earlier written in this column about an extraordinary medical trial that restored partial sight to six sightless people via an implant that transmits video images directly to the brain. The trial was run by experts from Baylor Medical College in Texas and from the University of California at Los Angeles. The implant fed camera images directly to the brain. The technology is not proven on those who are born sightless, but still represented a breakthrough.

To restore vision for a pair of monkeys, a team led by Pieter Roelfsema at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience created a brain implant made of needle-like electrodes 1.5mm in length, as detailed in a paper published in the journal Science. These electrodes are then attached to the brain’s visual cortex. The implants allowed the monkeys to “see" a pattern of dots corresponding to 16 letter shapes. The macaques had previously been trained to perform a simple task corresponding to one of those shapes. After the implants, the blinded macaques responded to each letter correctly, with the electrodes sending these directly to their brains. Roelfsema’s junior collaborator, Xing Chen said, “In the future, such technology could be used for the restoration of low vision in blind people who have suffered injury or degeneration of the retina, eye, or optic nerve, but whose visual cortex remains intact."

What is unusual about both these achievements is that they have leapfrogged earlier attempts to restore sight using eye or optic nerve implants among those who damaged their sight through accidents or other medical problems, both congenital and disease-related. Previous efforts, impressive in themselves, attempted to restore sight by placing implants directly in the retina of an eye or on the optic nerve. The new method bypasses the eye’s mechanism and works on the brain’s visual cortex instead.

Scientist Vivienne Ming’s area of research and development is “cognitive neuro-prosthetics": devices that directly interface with the brain to improve memory, attention, emotion, and much more. After she learnt that her son was autistic, she devoted her research work to build a face- and expression-recognition system for Google Glass designed to interpret others’ facial expressions in real-time. Ming said: “I’ve chosen to turn my son into a cyborg and change the definition of what it means to be human. But do my son’s engineered superpowers make him more human, or less?"

And here is where the rub lies.

There is now word that China has been conducting trials to produce bio-hacked enhanced soldiers. John Ratcliffe, US director of national intelligence, made this claim in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power," wrote Ratcliffe. “U.S. intelligence shows that China has conducted ‘human testing’ on members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in hope of developing soldiers with ‘biologically enhanced capabilities’."

Apart from the startling op-ed by Ratcliffe, other studies have also suggested that China, unlike the West, has pushed the ethical boundaries of ‘cyborg’ experimentation well beyond what would generally be acceptable in most of the world.

According to a paper by the Jamestown Foundation, China’s Military Biotech Frontier: CRISPR, Military-Civil Fusion, and the New Revolution in Military Affairs, Chinese scientists across academic institutions and commercial enterprises have been at the forefront of experimentation with this technique from the start, including the company BGI (formerly “Beijing Genomics Inc."), which also manages China’s National Gene Bank. China’s CRISPR work has rapidly progressed into clinical trials that involve the application of these gene editing techniques to animals and humans. This may be because some of the regulatory requirements for medical research in China are less strict and demanding. For instance, there are currently at least 14 trials of CRISPR underway across Chinese hospitals that are primarily exploring its potential to treat cancer. Strikingly, medical institutions run by the PLA, particularly the PLA General Hospital and the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, are involved in five of the trials known to be underway at present.

To me, the dark side of bio-hacking represents a clear and present threat more significant than the potentially unethical uses of artificial intelligence (AI). At least the dangers of personal data used by AI are already regulated or getting regulated in most of the world. Bio-hacking is less well understood, and its regulation, let alone international treaties against its misuse, seems nowhere on the horizon. That’s unfortunate.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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